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 - Northwestern Memorial Hospital - Chicago

Degenerative Disc Disease

Degenerative disc disorders reflect changes to your spinal discs as you age. Spinal discs separate the vertebrae that make up the spine, and are soft and compressible.

They act as shock absorbers for the spine, allowing it to bend, flex, and twist. While degenerative disc disorders can occur throughout the spine, they most commonly occur in the lower back region (lumbar) and the neck region (cervical).

Age breaks down our spinal discs, and can be caused by loss of fluid in the discs, which thins the disc, narrowing the distance between vertebrae.

As the space between vertebrae decreases, there is less padding between them, and the spine becomes unstable. This causes the body to react by creating bony growths known as osteophytes (bone spurs), which can put pressure on the spinal cord, causing pain and problems with nerve function.

Tiny cracks or tears in the outer layer of the disc can also occur, forcing out the material inside the disc, causing the disc to bulge or rupture or even break into fragments.

Smokers, those who do heavy physical work, and obese individuals are likelier to experience degenerative disc disorders.

Signs & Symptoms

Degenerative disc disorders may cause back and/or neck pain, although some individuals have no pain, and some may experience severe pain, even with the same amount of damage to their discs.

Location of the pain is dependent on the location of the affected disc: the neck area may cause arm or neck pain, while the lumbar region (lower back) may result in pain in the back, buttocks or legs.

Movements can make the pain worse, such as reaching up, twisting or bending over.


There are a number of treatments available for degenerative disc disorders, including:

  • Use of ice or heat to relieve pain
  • Acetaminophen or nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) like aspirin, ibuprofen or naproxen

Your doctor may prescribe stronger medications if needed.

Other treatments can be made depending on whether the damaged disc has caused other conditions such as:

  • Osteoarthritis
  • Spinal stenosis (narrowing of spaces in the spine)
  • Herniated disc

Surgery for degenerative disc disorders typically involves removal of the damaged disc.

In some cases, the bone is then fused to protect the spinal cord. Rarely, an artificial disc may be used to replace the removed disc.

Last UpdateJanuary 19, 2012